Tying the Knot(s) – Women, Tallitot, and Tzedek

By Rabbi Wendi Geffen, North Shore Congregation Israel

(This blog is a sharing of something we are currently doing at our synagogue.  It’s idea, I think, worth spreading.)

Last week, our sisterhood (The Women of NSCI) hosted their annual retreat.  It’s theme (since the portion was Tetzaveh) was “The Clothes We Wear.”  Inspired by the idea of a justice tallit I had created for myself*, the retreat chairs noted that at our synagogue, the tallitot available at services are of the “traditional” blue and white stripe design, and none of us had ever seen a woman from our synagogue put one of those on.  With this in mind, the group decided they would create 10 justice tallitot to give to our synagogue for worship services and Torah reading. Leading up to the retreat, I collected more socially responsible, fair wage, and women-crafted fabric from both India and Thailand.  Our sisterhood as a whole made a generous donation to AJWS as a way of assuring an explicit tzedek component in the process.  One of our members who happens to be an amazing seamstress affixed pieces of the socially responsible fabric along the top of and as corner squares on 10 larger swaths of white fabric.  At the retreat, sitting in groups of 4 with each participant responsible for one corner, thus one tzitit, women ranging from 40-nearly 90 years learned how to tie tzitzit.  They learned about what a tallit really is.  They heard about the fabric that was being used, stories from where it came from and who it supported.  The women learned about the different combinations of string twists and what they stood for. Then, when ready, we all declared in unison the traditional words to say before tying: “Lshem mitzvat tzitzit.” And then the tying began. Some chose the traditional 7,8,11,13 formula of tying and some the Sephardi 10, 5,6,5 style.  Each group was intentional in their choice and the kavanah/ intentionality they were bringing to their tying.  It was really something.  Looking around, I saw women with strings twisting in their fingers, heads down to focus on their knot-making, but the room still a-buzz with the beautiful sounds of women sharing their stories.  Some wondering what their own ancestors would think of what they were doing, some commenting that they themselves had never worn a tallit but now would try.  I found it deeply moving, and from what they’ve shared with me since then, they did to.

At the retreat, one of its leaders shared that she dreams that by next High Holy Days, she’ll be able to look around and see mothers and daughters, granddaughters and grandmothers, all wearing justice tallitot.  I share that same dream with her. The next step for us will be a series of workshops where individuals from our community can contribute tzedekah and make their own justice tallit.

If you have any questions or might be interested in bringing the idea of a justice tallit to your community, let me know.  I’m happy to share with you the details of our process.

*I spent some time in India this past summer as a part of an American Jewish World Service rabbinic delegation.  Much of time meeting with activists in that country, as well as volunteering in a rural village, re-enforced what so many of us already know: our market place is no longer the corner shop.  It is the globe. And Jewish tradition is clear that we are accountable to and responsible for the communities from which we consume.   As such, while I was in India, I purchased a swath of fabric traditionally hand woven and painted by women in a rural village and sold to me through an organization that provides those women in that village education opportunities, job training, legal advocacy, and fair commission so that they can empower themselves and improve their own lives.  I bought that fabric in particular because I planned to attach threads to its corners and tie tzitzit, turning the fabric into a tallit, so it could serve as a physical reminder to me of our unique obligation as Jews to bring people from the outside in and of our accountability to the world around us, in everything we do.  My tallit quickly became known as a tzedek or justice tallis.   And in particular, women (of all different ages) inquired as to how they could have their own “justice tallis” too.  And so was born what has a most powerful experience.

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